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Money in Politics is Not All Bad, Professor Tabatha Abu El-Haj Blogs at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice

Professor Tabatha Abu El-Haj

June 18, 2018

Money has potential to do tremendous good for the political system, if it’s used to engage citizens, Professor Tabatha Abu El-Haj wrote in a blog post published June 11 by New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.

“’Money in politics’ has become an unfortunate shorthand for what is wrong with contemporary American politics,” Abu El-Haj wrote. “It is not the presence of money, or even the amount of money, in elections that is at the root of our dysfunctional politics. It is the ease with which extremely wealthy individuals and corporations exchange their economic capital for political influence.”

Many are preoccupied with the flow of money into elections since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United case, said Abu El-Haj, who blames a weakening of civil society that has been under way for decades for much of the decline in the nation’s political system.  

“With the demise of private-sector unionism and the fading of class-integrated, mass-membership associations, middle-class Americans today are only about a third as likely as the affluent to belong to an organization that takes a stand on public issues,” she wrote. “Indeed, while the super wealthy increasingly orbit in close-knit social and professional circles, ordinary Americans are increasingly socially disconnected from one another in ways that undermine their political power.”

Dollars devoted to building political consciousness and engaging voters through face-to-face outreach are dollars well spent, Abu El-Haj contended, citing BlackPAC, a super PAC that helped Democrat Doug Jones win a U.S. Senate seat in deep-red Alabama in 2017 as an example. Though BlackPAC raised eyebrows by gathering money from the political establishment, she said, the organization used it to launch a sustainable, year-round voter engagement process that prioritizes face-to-face voter mobilization.

Likewise, she observed, Democrat Conor Lamb pulled off a special election upset in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district thanks to a “personalized mobilization strategy in which local organizations took the lead,” logging thousands of face-to-face conversations with voters every weekend.

“Unlike TV advertisements or mass mailings (whether traditional or digital), peer-to-peer strategies offer an array of second-order returns by deepening the political engagement of volunteers and reinforcing the organizational and civic capacity necessary to revive democratic responsiveness and accountability,” she wrote.

Advocates for good government, she said, should “recognize that our primary task is to figure out how to mitigate the degree of political inequality in society by empowering ordinary Americans to effectively participate, and that doing so requires seed money.”

Abu El-Haj is a constitutional scholar who is principally interested in the American political process. The blog post echoes concepts laid out in her new article, “Networking the Party: First Amendment Rights & the Pursuit of Responsive Party Government,” which appears in Columbia Law Review.